Steroid Inquisition

Revolutionary Worker #1234, March 28, 2004, posted at

"Not since Nancy Reagan urged America's youth to "just say no'' has a White House so publicly thrust itself into an anti-drug campaign as the Bush administration has done in its crusade against steroid use among athletes."

-- San Francisco Chronicle

"It's like McCarthyism or something. They're looking to see who looks like a communist. I'll probably get in trouble for that, too, but that's how I equate it."

--Dusty Baker, Chicago Cubsmanager, on the steroid scandal

"President Bush once against defended his decision to invade Iraq, saying Saddam Hussein was weeks away from obtaining an atomic bomb, and/or steroids.''

-- Late Late Show host Craig Kilborn

The government has declared a war on steroid use in sports. President Bush had more to say about steroids than the existence of weapons of mass destruction in his State of the Union address. John Ashcroft backed up Bush with a major press conference on February 13, announcing federal indictments against four men accused of conspiring to provide illegal substances to athletes. One of the men indicted was a personal trainer to baseball superstar Barry Bonds of the SF Giants. And the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative or BALCO, the lab involved, allegedly had ties to a number of other prominent sports figures. On March 11, Senator John McCain and others threatened Don Fehr, president of the Major League Baseball Players Association, with government action unless the players' union backed down in their opposition to more extensive drug testing of players.

A witch-hunt atmosphere is being created in baseball around the use of steroids. Players are being told that they must submit to extensive drug and even lie detector tests or be considered guilty of using steroids. Even though players like Barry Bonds broke no law and did nothing against baseball rules, his records are being called into question and he is being hounded by the media everywhere he goes. Mark McGuire, who held the single season home run record until it was broken by Bonds, is also being told that his record is questionable because he admits to having taken a legal supplement called Andro which is sold over the counter and which baseball has no rules against using.

After Bonds was repeatedly hounded at his first day of practice, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "as he walked toward the showers after Tuesday's workout, past a table at which Willie Mays was sitting, Bonds said presumably about himself, `The most wanted man in America.' He then raised his fist, a la Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, and said, `Black power.' "

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

"Why would the Attorney General get on TV if all this was just about a trainer and some guys in some sports lab? That's why I think there's something more to this.''

--Chuck Yesalis, a Penn State professor and authority on steroids

The steroid frenzy didn't just erupt out of nowhere. And there is high-level involvement, i.e. Bush and Ashcroft, in fanning this controversy and using it to implement repressive measures.

Sports in capitalist society, like other institutions of knowledge, education, and the media, are, as the RCP Draft Programme says, "dominated, shaped and twisted to meet the needs of capital and the bourgeois class." (p. 108)

The demand that every athlete should be piss-tested and blood tested and be absolutely accessible to the drug police at all times and in every way is very much linked to the larger domestic clampdown going on in America. The government, with the Patriot Act and other recent moves, has been working to reverse the bourgeois legal premise that people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.

Now the government can conduct secret surveillance of mosques and political meetings without any evidence that a crime is being committed. The government can round up hundreds of people without charging them and hold them indefinitely as "material witnesses," or charge people with being "enemy combatants" and hold them forever without access to an attorney or trial.

As Bob Avakian has pointed out: The U.S. "can't go and wage open-ended war like this and not have a lot of repressive mechanisms already being implemented and much more machinery ready to bring into play, especially when this kind of thing starts to get out of hand and there's a lot of resistance, and there's what they call `blowback' internationally or even within the U.S. itself. Things could get very much out of hand by what they're unleashing and the very things that they're bringing into being. So they need repression now and they also need to prepare for even further heightening that repression as things go down the road." ("Bob Avakian Speaks Out, Interviewed by Carl Dix," Revolutionary Worker #1155, June 16, 2002)

Keeping Athletes Under Control

In the BALCO case, the government called seven athletes who have ties one way or another with the lab to testify in secret hearings in front of a grand jury. The government offered limited immunity to the athletes in exchange for their testimony. But it has been reported that the athletes were threatened with perjury charges if the government wasn't happy with what they said. It is reported that the prosecutors invoked the name of Chris Webber, the NBA All-Star who was charged with perjury after he testified before a federal grand jury in 2000.

In early March, there were anonymous leaks to the press that Barry Bonds, New York Yankees stars Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, and three other major-league baseball players received steroids from BALCO. Lawyers for the BALCO defendants deny that there is any evidence against the athletes and claim that the links came from the government and are part of a political agenda on the part of Ashcroft.

The government wants to exert a certain amount of control over high-level professional athletes who have a great deal of ties to and influence over the basic people as well as more broadly in society. And they are relying on a sort of crude populism to line up the people to support their repressive moves. The media is promoting the idea that: "These guys make $70 million, they think they are entitled to do anything, they don't care about the average fan, so they should get snapped into line by the state." This kind of revenge logic is not in the interests of the people. The fact that a lot of the athletes are privileged and spoiled at some level is true, but it is hardly the point. It isn't the athletes themselves that have created the huge class disparities in income distribution in this country.

What About Steroids?

Steroids work by binding to the nucleus of muscle cells, causing the cell to produce more protein that increases the size of the muscle. Steroids are associated with a number of health problems including heart disease (caused by increased cholesterol levels), liver damage, and tendon tears (because the muscles are growing faster than the tendons). They also can cause impotence, hair loss, and enlarged breasts in men, and facial hair, disruption of menstruation, and male pattern baldness in women.

However, public health experts who oppose the use of steroids have a hard time justifying the emphasis being given to these drugs. "As a matter of public health policy, it is very hard to defend that prominence,'' according to Professor Robert MacCoun, a professor of law and public policy at UC Berkeley. MacCoun said that while steroid use was "not a trivial problem, it's just very hard to put it on the same scale as some of the other health problems we deal with, including alcohol, tobacco, HIV and obesity. It's pretty far down the list."

And anybody that watches professional sports knows that the health of the athletes is not that important to the owners or the media. "There is a win-at-all-costs culture that says unless you do spectacular things on the field or on the court, you're nothing special,'' said Raiders running back Tyrone Wheatley. "Is it OK that athletes are shot up with drugs to keep them playing with broken bones and torn ligaments but not OK when they take supplements to keep them on the field?"

If the government is really concerned about the health hazards of steroids, why doesn't it do something about the steroids that are fed to 80% of the cattle in the United States? Steroids in the U.S. food supply have been linked to cancer, especially breast cancer, and other health problems. Steroids carried into the water supply from cattle manure have caused fish downstream to develop with both male and female sex organs. Although steroid use in cattle has been banned in Europe, its use continues in this country. Why? Because it is a tremendous source of extra profits for the beef industry.

The "Purity" of Sports

The sports pages have been full of talk about how this scandal has tainted the "purity" of sports and cast a shadow over baseball in particular. The sports pages are full of mean-spirited rants about how this record or that record needs to have a asterisk next to it and so on.

As ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock wrote, "Quit looking for virtue in American sports. It's not there. It left when the dollars arrived."

"Isn't it about fair play, and being `clean,' and the `purity' of the game?" columnist Ralph Wiley asks in a recent ESPN column on the scandal. "Ruth's records are tainted. Aaron's records are tainted," Wiley writes, answering his question. He continues, "They were each amassed by human beings performing in imperfect human systems. So of course they're tainted. But I do not blame Babe Ruth, hold it against him, that his records were amassed in a league that prohibited the participation of much of the skilled labor force, the black and the brown, the Latin American or the Asian, the African- Americans from the same land of origin."

The Reality of Testing

Columnists write that submitting to drug testing is no big thing, so athletes should stop complaining and start lining up to pee in the cup.

Tyrone Wheatley, one of the seven athletes who testified before a grand jury in the BALCO case, described what athletes have to go through in these days of testing mania. He has every vitamin and nutritional supplement he buys tested by an outside laboratory for traces of illegal substances before he ingests them. "The NFL tells players that we are responsible for everything we put into our bodies, so why would I put myself at risk if my vitamins or fish oil capsules or protein powder somehow had become cross-contaminated during manufacturing?" Wheatley said. "How else can I be certain that my bottle of vitamins hasn't been contaminated, because they might be bottling THG or steroids on the other side of the room?"

Also, anabolic steroids aren't the only drug on the lists of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the international body that oversees athletic drug testing. The list of banned substances includes marijuana, glucosteroids (like those you take for a runny nose) and other not so dangerous and not so harmful stuff. In fact, until recently caffeine was on the list of banned substances.

Even instituting a stringent testing program doesn't guarantee that the pee police will consider a sport or athlete clean. Recently Lance Armstrong, five-time Tour de France champion, wrote an open letter to WADA president Dick Pound, who had made statements that steroid use is widespread in cycling. Armstrong wrote, "The Tour de France is one of the most tested competitions in world sport. all the samples are analyzed in a lab in Paris that has an excellent reputation and has been accredited by the International Olympic Committee and WADA." Armstrong notes that in over 710 drug tests in cycling in 2003 only 0.56 percent were positive for any banned substances. "Perhaps Mr. Pound, like some others, believes that negative test results don't demonstrate that a rider is clean," Armstrong continued. "If this was the case, it could be affirmed that not a single athlete is clean. Is that really the position of WADA? Should a person with such beliefs be directing the most important anti-doping agency in the world? I don't think so."

Lessons from the War on Drugs

"Ronald Reagan launched a war on drugs in the 1980s. We now have a flourishing prison-building-and-management industry, hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders locked behind bars serving more time than murderers and rapists, and just as many recreational drug users as ever. Bush's war on steroids won't accomplish a damn thing."

--ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock

People who are confused about the nature of the government's current crusade against steroid use in sports should look at the government's war on drugs over the last two decades. Drug abuse is a real problem in this society. But ask yourself: did the government's war on drugs do anything to really solve the problem of drug use in this country?

All the hype about steroids in sports reinforces the police-state logic that no one has the right to claim "innocent until proven guilty." In Ashcroft and Bush America if you do not submit to testing, and publicly release the results, you are guilty and will be marked for life--even if you are a huge superstar and have broken historic records. This is the logic of a whole repressive agenda that needs to be exposed and opposed.